Quake victims shiver in ruins of Soviet promises

Armenia/ forgotten tragedy

THE FREIGHT trains, stuffed with medicines and rumbling five score a day into this shivering, earthquake-shattered Armenian city in December 1988, carried an exhilarating hope - that Moscow might actually deliver on a promise by Mikhail Gorbachev to rebuild the ruins.

Six-and-a-half-years later, the same railway cars carry a more dispiriting cargo - and a bleak message to what, through man-made and natural catastrophe, is now an archipelago of ruined and mostly forgotten towns across the former Soviet Union.

The metal containers that brought relief in 1988 to Armenia today house tens of thousands of despairing people, left homeless by the great Armenian earthquake and still sheltering in rusty, airless boxes scattered across a landscape of rubble.

"Gorbachev promised us he would rebuild the whole city in two years," said Mikhail Vardanian, a former puppet theatre artist, veteran of the war in Nagorny Karabakh and now the mayor of Gyumri, the post-Soviet name of what used to be Leninakan. "But the Gorbachev programme was just another myth."

From his office on the third floor of one of the few multi-storey buildings left standing, Mr Vardanian surveys a vista of shanty settlements, collapsed concrete and abandoned construction sites. His father was among the 25,000 who perished.

So colossal was the destruction in Leninakan, Spitak and other towns in 1988 that Mr Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, cut short a trip to New York and rushed to Armenia to inspect the devastation and promise a rapid renaissance. He even lifted a Soviet taboo on accepting disaster relief from abroad. No longer a Soviet satrap, Armenia is today independent. It is also alone.

The damage Mr Gorbachev vowed to fix here has since been replicated in other former Soviet republics and in Russia itself. So has the frustration.

What nature did to Leninakan in 1988 has since been done by man to Sukhumi, a Black Sea resort ravaged by war in 1993, and also to the Chechen capital of Grozny, smashed by Russian shells early this year. The republic of Tajikistan too is littered with the wreckage of civil war.

Last week the grim catalogue was joined by yet another pile of rubble - the town of Neftegorsk, a remote town in Russia's Far East obliterated by the worst earthquake to hit the former Soviet Union since Armenia's.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has vowed to spare no effort to bring relief to survivors in Neftegorsk, where collapsed buildings entomb more than 1,000 people. He has also promised to rebuild Grozny, a city of 400,000 reduced to ruins reminiscent of those left by the Second World War.

If the experience of Armenia is any indication, the prognosis for such urban wrecks is bleak. In Gyumri, the biggest city hit by the 1988 quake, around half of a population of 210,000 live in packing crates, freight containers known as vagonchiki and other makeshift shelters.

"It is hell in those containers in winter. And winter here lasts for six months," said Mr Vardanian. Many of the buildings that did not crumble lie empty and abandoned, their walls cracked, their window frames and doors torn out by local authorities for use in the promised construction boom that, after a brief spurt of activity, quickly fizzled out.

Conceived by Mr Gorbachev as a model of Soviet solidarity, with relief workers and construction teams pouring in from across the land, the reconstruction programme became instead the last, feeble gasp of Moscow's disintegrating authority. As each of 15 republics gained their independence, generosity towards Armenia, no longer enforced, dried up. "All the republics came to help us," said Mr Vardanian, the mayor. "Many new buildings were started. But most were never finished. After independence, the workers went home."

Foreign relief workers lingered longer. Among the few buildings completed was the Lord Byron School, built with British funds near the tangled wreckage of a department store. Next door is the Margaret Thatcher Hotel - a portakabin hauled in to house foreign aid workers but now deserted apart from a grumpy manageress, her sickly friend and a mangy dog.

"All we got was promises," complained Alvina Gaifajian. "It is better to die than keep living like this. I forgot about eating meat years ago. I can't even remember its colour."

Before the earthquake, this city was one of the main industrial centres for the entire Caucasus region. Its main textile factory processed some 500 tons of cotton a day from Central Asia. Today, it gets only 15 tons a year. The damage wrought by the quake has been exacerbated by power shortages that have left the city without electricity for all but two hours a day. Half the population is unemployed.

The lessons of the 1988 tragedy have been almost entirely ignored. Volodya Neshisian, a retired builder, used to live in a five-storey prefab block on Leningradsky Street. The building, built in Nikita Khrushchev's crash housing programme of the 1960s, fell down - as did identical blocks in Neftegorsk last week.

Mr Neshisian's family of nine now live in vagonchiki near the remnants of a once-splendid 19th century cathedral. "We are going to die in this metal crate. We either live here or out in the street," he said.

His son, a former soldier, has just returned home from war in Nagorny Karabakh. Wounded three times in battles with Azerbaijan and decorated for bravery by the Armenian president, he has no job, sees little future and clings desperately to what he hopes might be his passport out of this ruined city - a crumpled business card from a dry-cleaner's in Detroit. He found it in the pocket of a jacket sent from America in a shipment of second-hand clothing. With all the other promises long forgotten, the business card is cherished as a sacred relic - a sign that someone somewhere still remembers what happened.

There will be no such comfort or false hope for the survivors of Neftegorsk. Mr Yeltsin, in a spasm of old-style Kremlin paranoia, has decreed that Russia needs no help from abroad. Moscow, he promises, can cope with its disasters alone.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone